In March, a report ranked Gila County as one of the state’s least healthy. Now, the county health department is spearheading an effort to fix one of the identified issues — Gila County’s high number of traffic fatalities.
The county ranks third highest in the state with 33 per 100,000 people dying in car crashes. The state average was 20 per 100,000.
Kids in Arizona receive permits at 15 years and 6 months, many of them never having sat in a car driver’s seat, said Bill Bowling, who works with the county health department and is spearheading the effort to start an education program.
After six months, teen drivers can earn a license, although they must follow certain rules for another six months that limit the hours driven and outline age requirements for passengers.
“When we were young we started driving at a very young age,” said Bowling. Growing up in Flagstaff, he gripped the wheel of a 1955 Oldsmobile as a pre-teen, and learned to drive in case of emergency; for driving his mother or father to the hospital, for instance.
“It was necessary for safety’s sake,” said Bowling, now 61 and a Payson resident.
The county’s health department seized upon the ranking as one of the measures it could affect. It plans to help expand access to driver’s education programs, but ultimately wants to find another organization, like the community college, to run the program.
The next meeting in Payson will take place at 9 a.m., July 22, with the location to be announced.
No southern Gila County high school offers driver’s education. Payson has historically offered the program, but it may fall victim to budget cuts. Kathe Ketchem, principal of Payson High School, said the district still has not received a budget from the state and she couldn’t say whether the program will continue.
The person currently teaching driver’s education will not work with the district next year, and so the program’s future remains unclear.
The coalition, however, hopes to compensate for the dearth of high school driver training.
Members include representatives from the Payson Police Department, local fire departments, the health department, a county attorney, and a member of Payson’s business community. Ketchem also attended the meeting Thursday morning.
The program’s specifics haven’t been outlined yet, but possibilities include offering online training through a national program.
Bowling said Chapman Auto Center has offered a car complete with a passenger side brake at little or no cost, solving one of the major hurdles to starting a new program.
Although the group will need to raise money for start-up costs, the idea is to sustain it with fees paid by students. The group may start a scholarship fund for students unable to afford the class.
Members seek ideas from the community about how the program would run. Also, the group needs to find someone willing to teach classes.
So far, group members have held several brainstorming sessions where they discussed existing efforts within the county, including a drinking and driving program that the Payson Police Department presents to high school students before prom and graduation.
Also, Payson High School’s student council has developed the award-winning Project Ignition, in which students educate other students about the importance of concentration and wearing seat belts.
The possibility exists of combining or building upon existing efforts.
Already, the group has devised possible suggestions. One involves placing signs reading “We are a safe driver town” in the outskirts to remind people to drive safely.
Members have also discussed possible incentives for safe driving, including not taking the field-driving test.
Members agreed that whatever program the community develops should be offered through the schools, and that it should address both road and off-road driving, in quads, for instance.